Ask EDDY: Marketing To and Serving Online Students Q&A

By: Nicole Szopinski Jul 22, 2022

Ask EDDY: Marketing To and Serving Online Students Q&A

Delve into EDDY’s Online College
Student Report

We received many questions from many of you regarding the trends observed in our 2022 Online College Student Report. President of Enrollment Management Services, Greg Clayton, sat down with two of our experts to answer your questions. Here’s what you need to know about enrollment marketing.

Sarah Russell is the Vice President of Marketing for Enrollment Management Services at EducationDynamics. She oversees a team of experts in various aspects of marketing, including digital marketing, search and social media, SEO, organic marketing, awareness marketing, and creative content. Sarah is a longtime expert on higher education marketing, with over a decade of experience in the field. With her deep understanding of the higher education landscape, she is able to help our partners craft strategies that drive results. She is also a data-driven marketer, always looking for ways to optimize performance and exceed enrollment goals.

Chris Gilmore is Vice President of our Enrollment Management Services Operation. He oversees a team of 80 plus enrollment coaches, success coaches, managers, training, and development, and QA staff. Our enrollment services include new enrollment management work on behalf of our partners, retention and success coaching, re-enrollment services, marketing automation, and nurturing services. Chris has decades of experience in higher education enrollment management and is also an expert on the adult higher education enrollment management market.

Question: How are the broad market conditions impacting inquiries and engagement/enrollments?

Sarah: The conversion rate from click-to-inquiry is up for graduate terms, but down for undergraduate terms and overall, graduate keywords tend to convert a little bit lower than undergraduate terms. So, what this says to me is that while student interest in these programs is remaining high and growing year-over-year at the beginning of the funnel, persistence through the funnel is more of a challenge based on those enrollment trends. The student enrollment is down across degree types. The challenge for schools becomes – how do you increase engagement post visit to your website, post-inquiry, really focusing on those conversion rates to application and enrollment while you’re keeping those marketing costs on the front-end controlled? There are some positive headwinds with the cost-per-clicks and the increasing search demand, but there are some really strong challenges with the conversion rates, both to inquiry as well as to enrollment and start.

Chris: With the current state of the economy, you would assume there is a lot of competition at the undergraduate and at the degree completion space for these students that are not coming from other institutional programs but are just coming from unique opportunities in the job market. It is a high competition time where these particular students are considering job opportunities right now, and they are considering the value proposition of enrolling in a program versus going out and taking advantage of these increased hourly wages at the degree completion level. One of the things that I think makes sense to do with this current reality is to equip your teams that are having conversations with prospective students as they enter the funnel. Make sure that they understand the reality because whether these students are saying it out loud to coaches or enrollment advisors, they likely are thinking it. It makes more sense for your teams, your support coaches, and your enrollment coaches to have more intentional conversations around the motivations for completing the degree and helping the prospective students potentially realize that it’s not necessarily an either/or if they can find the right program dynamic and the right modality. Why not position themselves to take advantage of the increased hourly wages at the job opportunities right now, but also not put their degree completion on the back burner.

Question: Are leads at the BA, MA, and Doctoral levels getting harder to generate?

Sarah: On the graduate side specifically, the search demand is way up year-over-year. The average cost-per-click across EDDY’s partners has become more efficient year-over-year in the graduate space. The conversion rate to inquiry from click is stronger, but still below what I would typically expect to see from an undergraduate program. Generally speaking, those are the makings of a more efficiently priced cost-per-lead. And one that’s a little bit easier to get to based on users being more engaged and driving more of that demand in those search terms. On the undergraduate side, we see a lot of those same trends, but just a little bit more suppressed. The search volume is up, but not quite as much as we’re seeing as a percentage compared to graduate terms the cost-per-clicks are down, but not as aggressively as we’re seeing on the graduate side. That conversion rate for undergrad is a little bit down year-over-year, but still higher in general than what we see for graduates. It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. I would say that from a marketing standpoint and generating inquiries, it’s a positive search landscape with CPCs and search volume being effective and conversion rate tends to differ based on graduate versus undergraduate. On the graduate side specifically, the search demand is way up year-over-year. The average cost-per-click across EDDY’s partners has become more efficient year-over-year in the graduate space. The conversion rate to inquiry from click is stronger, but still below what I would typically expect to see from an undergraduate program. Generally speaking, those are the makings of a more efficiently priced cost-per-lead. And one that’s a little bit easier to get to based on users being more engaged and driving more of that demand in those search terms. On the undergraduate side, we see a lot of those same trends, but just a little bit more suppressed. The search volume is up, but not quite as much as we’re seeing as a percentage compared to graduate terms the cost-per-clicks are down, but not as aggressively as we’re seeing on the graduate side. That conversion rate for undergrad is a little bit down year-over-year, but still higher in general than what we see for graduates. It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. I would say that from a marketing standpoint and generating inquiries, it’s a positive search landscape with CPCs and search volume being really effective and conversion rate tends to differ based on graduate versus undergraduate. Your best bet is to take advantage of those marketing tailwinds, generate some of that increasing demand, and convert that into clicks for you. Then, putting a big focus on conversion and optimization of the landing page experience, where you’re driving that traffic. Whether it’s your main side, on the organic side, whether it’s a landing page on the paid media side, you really need to be converting that traffic to inquiry at the highest rate. And there needs to be a clear and strong focus on A/B testing or conversion rate elements and making sure that you are clearing the way, and removing as many barriers to conversion as possible on your websites so that you can capture that inquiry and get it into the funnel.

Question: Is the prospect pie getting smaller and by how much at the degree level?

Sarah: While there’s been a lot of focus and conversation around this demographic cliff, that’s going to be upon us in a few years (based on the decreasing birth rates 17 and 18 years ago), I think that can be more than offset by the increase in returning students and adult learners and those who are not necessarily your traditional college freshman. It will be important for that growth and overall pie to focus beyond just the traditional student. If you’re looking at just traditional students, yes, I would expect that prospect pie to be getting a little bit smaller, but in terms of how you’re engaging with students and which students you’re engaging with, there’s a wealth of adult learners and there’s a wealth of students who want to get micro-credentials or certifications and not just one but multiple. If you’re speaking to an adult learner who’s fully employed and needs to get a certain credential or certification, unlike a traditional bachelor’s degree program. In that case, that does not have to be the end of that relationship with that prospective student or those who become an eventual student. There’s going to be an ongoing relationship and an ongoing increasing lifetime value when you’re focusing more on those students versus the smaller prospect pie on the undergraduate side.

Question: What platforms and strategies do you see as the best way to let potential students your programs learn your programs exist and are affordable?

Sarah: The biggest thing is to leverage your internal first-party data as much as possible. It’s not an emerging strategy, but one, I would say is important for you to double down on is taking the inquiry or enrollment data of your historical prospective students that you have in your CRM and working with platforms where you can upload that and create lookalike audiences. You’re finding more people who are going to be interested in program offerings or your institution. That can look like one of a couple of different ways. Number one, a lot of the major advertisers, Google, and Facebook, you can do that directly with, or if you want to disseminate that across a larger number of vendors, you can work with a DMP, or a data management platform, to do it kind centrally and export it out. But the main takeaway here is that the industry is becoming more and more focused on privacy, which means fewer and fewer audience targeting controls for advertisers. In order to continue to be as effective as possible, look to your first-party data as being the source of your audience targeting and use that as your largest priority for creating audiences.

Question: What have you seen develop in terms of getting the message out to students about your school brand, programs, and messaging on the TV side with OTT, and how has that medium advanced in its use in higher education?

Sarah:  OTT is a fantastic way for advertisers to get scale and reach that they might be used to in TV or traditional media while making audience targeting more of a focus. With terrestrial radio or traditional TV placements, it’s an extremely wide net. You’re not able to pick and choose what types of audiences are households you want your ads to be running in. OTT is fantastic in that it gives you some of that scale with more audience control. And again, you can leverage some of your first-party data to inform what those audience targets need to look like. That should be a big focus for advertisers from an awareness standpoint, things like TikTok and to a lesser degree, Snapchat gets a lot of hubbub and attention because the usage of those platforms is extremely high. But there is still a little bit of a gulf between prospective students who are on those platforms and prospective students who are open to an education message on those platforms or are willing to take an action from those platforms. From that standpoint, OTT tends to be a lot more effective in terms of pushing users into your funnel whom you can then look to convert in organic search or paid search channels.

Question: How do we leverage what we are learning about the shifting marketplace in our recruitment of non-traditional students for online programs?

Chris: Age is not necessarily the strong predictor that it used to be. We are trying to focus on recruiting students to online programs versus recruiting non-traditional adult students to online programs.  In terms of how that has shifted the thought on what could draw this now broader crowd towards online programs from an admissions perspective, I think the good news is this might make it a little bit easier for us because we’re so used to segmenting. Now with the broader audience, I think we get to fall back on what the data tell us is a consistent driver for choosing and enrolling in an online program. And regardless of age, we need to be speaking and highlighting those things. That’s making sure that we’re solid in how our talking points and our value propositions down on the basics. Cost is a big one. Completion time has come up a couple of times already in our discussion as a huge concern across the board. Being able to get this done quickly. And then increasingly is that ever-present return on investment; being able to show these students that regardless of whether you’re considering the degree completion at the undergrad level, or you’re considering going back to that graduate degree as an online student, they need to be able to clearly understand the value proposition in regards to the return on their investment, their money and their time.

Question: How do online students prefer to be engaged while considering an online program?

Chris: I would make, I think two points out the gate: one, it’s not new, and it’s been in our own data and research that students are more likely to move forward with the first institution that successfully engages them after they get to that point of requesting information. The second is more to the question of how they prefer to engage? There’s no one consistent answer to that. There is a need to be present on all channels. Our partners will bring up text messaging; is it critical that we’re texting students and at this point in the game, my response is yes. But it’s also critical that you’re calling students and emailing students because there will be those that engage in those channels individually. The broader thing we’re seeing in responding to students is being prepared because the student will choose to engage how they choose to engage. The important thing, in terms of contact and a student engagement strategy, is that we’re present and available in the channel when and where they do choose to engage for us. You also want to have the capability of engaging that student when they do choose to go that way. If you’re offering engagement in a specific channel, you really need to be able to engage in that channel. Do you have two-way conversational texting? Are you able with your internal staff to meet the expectations for response times when students choose to engage via specific channels like texting? In summary, the two points there is the speed of response, not new, and still critical. And where do they prefer to be? They prefer to be everywhere, so let’s be everywhere with them and be prepared to meet them where they choose to engage you.

Question: How can a school actively engage with online learners to support persistence and academic progress?

Chris: When our partners bring this up and when we share our perspective we need to keep in mind the original things that motivate non-traditional adult and online students to enroll in the degree program, need to continue to be prioritized as they move into post-enrollment, persistence, and completion of the program. One of those big basics I mentioned a minute ago was, speed to completion and being able to complete. First, we want to make sure that when an online student is getting into the program, they’re able to see that finish line from there. We want to look at all the activities from start to finish and help these students complete as few and minimally disruptive actions from start to finish as possible. We look at things like multiple term registration availability, and limited registration windows within a term for the upcoming term and encourage our partners to just look at that. I know there are certainly some things that motivate us to have restricted windows and certainly prerequisite completion, but it’s worth taking a review at that path from start to finish and identifying how many potential disruption points there are. Because we’re asking a student that must register one term at a time to make that recommitment once a term. That’s not something we would want to do if we can get around that. Looking at that structure, you want to ensure that from a student-engagement perspective, you have staff available to engage these enrolled students. We have so many things going on post-enrollment from student success factors like engagement, work-life balance, school, stressors, and ensuring that they’re completing prerequisites in an appropriate order; identify all those challenges and make sure that for those core challenges, you have dedicated staff resources. A lot of times our partners are prioritizing more of the traditional academic needs, which are very valid, but there’s less centralized ownership over what we talk a lot about with adult students.

Question: What is the messaging for traditional college-age students who were turned off by poorly constructed online classes during COVID?

Sarah: From a marketing standpoint, the biggest advice I could give to approach this would be in personalizing how and when you talk about it, based on how students found you. If you have the capability to do this, I would highly recommend you pass data into your CRM with the lead record that indicates how they requested information and, if possible, what keyword they searched for. And then you can bucket your prospective students and the inquiry volume that you’re getting based on those who were specifically seeking out ‘online education’ or ‘classes that are offered online’ versus those who might have been searching a little bit more generally, and you can create different nurturing strategies based on that information. For those who are seeking out online, there can be a message that speaks directly to the resources that your institution offers to online students and the technology that is available to them. Making that experience a lot more online-focused versus those who might not be searching for those online terms doesn’t mean they’re not interested in online. But it wasn’t top of mind for them to be included in their search terms. That messaging strategy and that nurturing strategy can look a little bit different in terms of how you’re interacting with those students. It takes some sophistication on the marketing side, but I think it’s well worth it in terms of the benefits that you gain from increased engagement throughout the funnel.

Chris: I think it’s always the best practice to equip your teams that are having those post-inquiry conversations and enrollment interviews to have strong in-depth conversations about the modality of inquiry that the student is interested in and what the drivers are behind that. Our survey this year found that the perceived value of online education has increased.

Question: How can online learning address (or fail to address) the needs of underrepresented student groups?

Chris: Whether you’re a first-generation college student, one of the challenges that we have to address is not coming from a background of higher education and not necessarily having what a lot of us may consider a traditional entry into higher education. These are the best practices that we talk about with regards to adult students and being able to help them see that just because you may not be on this path from A to completion, you can still fit this in, and here’s how we can help you do that with everything that you have on your plate. In working with coaching teams, it’s having those conversations that every individual student’s plate is a bit different, and some of them will have plates that have job demands, working not just one job, but two jobs along with family commitments. Taking the time to educate our teams on those realities of a population, a not small population of adult students, so that we can speak to how that individual student could potentially package completing their degree within all of these things.  I would also emphasize going back to the basics of our programs and understanding who’s enrolling in them and what those reoccurring challenges are. These are things that we talk about every day, not just in regards to, enrollment management strategy, but just the cost of degree completion, making sure that we’re factoring those things in with the students that are typically finding their way to our degrees, the time that they’re going to have to dedicate to completing their degree and making sure that the value proposition is speaking uniquely to each individual’s plate.

Sarah: I would echo a lot of those sentiments on the marketing side. I feel like there’s a huge opportunity for the messaging of ads and landing pages and websites to better reflect the reality of an underrepresented student. Whether that is just with creative messaging, or with more in-depth content around how an institution and particularly an institution’s online offerings can be a support to a student who may be working multiple jobs. What sort of retention support is available for students who are more likely to drop out after a certain number of semesters because of their life experiences or other priorities that are pressuring them. All of the information you can provide to a prospective student, whether that is blog content, video content, or landing page content, will give a clear picture of what being a student, and particularly, an online student of that institution is like. How they can overcome pressures and priorities that they have in their life already and how their education can fit into that easily is going to be really important. There’s a throughline thereof providing support and information around what that support really looks like.

Question: How do you build a persona of online learners?

Sarah: Whether you’re talking about online or just general marketing, persona development, and specifically personas that lead to actionable audience targeting capabilities are important. And I’m going to echo something that I said earlier, which is that as much as possible, you need to leverage your existing first-party data as the source to build upon. For anyone who might not be familiar, we’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry focused on privacy. Last year, Apple released its iOS 14 update, which prompted users to opt-in or opt-out of allowing apps to track them. In a surprise to no one, a huge majority of users opted out because people don’t like to know or give permission to be tracked. By that same token, third-party pixels are going to be sunset across Google next year, which makes them the last major browser. There are an increasing number of privacy restrictions that advertisers are battling against when developing their audiences. That’s going to make it harder and harder to rely on what some may consider the traditional methods of persona development. Whether that’s leveraging some of these third-party audience-building techniques, focus on the existing inquiry and student data that you already have in a privacy-safe way but work with trusted partners who can turn that into lookalike audiences or similar audiences that you can use as a baseline. From there, I would say that it’s important to make sure that your persona development can be turned into audience targeting parameters. As I mentioned before, if you’re trying to develop audience or personas, you’re going to get information, like they’re more likely to drive a Subaru or that sort of thing. That doesn’t give you a lot from a marketing standpoint to target or refine your targeting or your messaging. As much as you can, try to look for categories like their media habits, the types of programs they might be interested in, or the areas of study. And there’s a lot that we have at EducationDynamics internally based on our vast experience with higher education. We own some internal properties that we’re able to gather a lot of first-party data. That’s something that if you’re struggling with, we do have a lot of capabilities to help fill in some of the gaps or maybe take some persona development that led to a lot of really unactionable insights. I think that we’re going to be finding fewer and fewer differentiating factors between online students and on-campus or traditional students. As has been mentioned, age is no longer a determining factor. It’s growing in acceptance across all age groups and the under-24 population is growing quickly for the adoption of online learning and a positive viewpoint of online learning. I don’t think it’s going to be as important to come up with an online persona versus an on-ground or a traditional persona, but in general, developing audience personas and translating those into ways that you can actionably change your marketing is going to be important.